It has now been 200 days since Dallas leadership closed restaurant and bar dining rooms because of the pandemic. Back then, we had logged just 85 confirmed COVID-19 cases across Dallas County. There have since been more than 85,000. It’s not an anniversary I ever wanted to note, but here we are.
We are more storm-worn and weary, to be sure, but that same March week I wrote (and still stand by):
The state of dining, which is an already precarious industry to begin with, is being tested in ways it hasn’t been before. But if there ever was an industry to—we desperately hope—weather this virus-inflicted storm, it’s the restaurant industry.
It has been a bumpy ride. In a recent report, data from Yelp suggest 61 percent of restaurant closures since March are permanent. Back in March, Shift Dallas, a nonprofit that quickly organized to help hospitality workers, found that 22 percent of people they interviewed lost not one but two industry jobs.
Fifty percent reported living with someone who also (previously) worked in the industry, making rent and other bills overwhelming if not insurmountable. About 80 percent of front of house workers, Shift Dallas estimated, lost their jobs. In Texas, the latest employment numbers in food and drink is down 14.8 percent compared to February. Chef-restaurateurs like Julian Barsotti saw the writing on the wall.
“We’re staring at the abyss… It’s just so daunting to think about the damage that this is doing. And how much carnage is going to be unleashed. And how much will be, frankly, lost from this halting [of] our entire way of life and economy,” he told us then.
In August, Barsotti launched an Italian American meal kit service dubbed Grape Ape. Barsotti, in the face of such economic loss, found a way to create something new. Vegan Chef Troy Gardner also debuted a new project: his own ghost kitchen named TLC, which stands for Taste Like Chicken. He notes technological-logistical hiccups have been the most challenging thing thus far as diners catch up to this new genre of restaurant, but maintains the advantage over a traditional restaurant.
“It’s kind of a wonderful experience being able to not worry about the dining room and not worry about all the normal aspects of running a restaurant,” he says. “I 100 percent believe that this definitely is the year of the ghost kitchen.” Indeed, that very sector boomed this year.
If restaurateurs want to survive, they’ll have to continue creating new opportunities. It doesn’t appear government help is coming any time soon, though that is something the Texas Restaurant Association has been and continues to advocate for in Washington.
The other matter is keeping the workers safe. When the end of April came, an initial reopening phase loomed at the start of May. Many restaurant industry workers were wary of returning to work—work that they loved, but suddenly feared. We spoke to a small sample size of employees who served at diners, steakhouses, or stocked your local grocery store shelves. They dutifully returned to low wages and unpredictable tips, and at 25 percent capacity (later in May upped to 50 percent and eventually 75 percent in June) they certainly weren’t making as much as pre-COVID times. And servers who were worried about getting sick eventually did.
In April, we reported that Texas received more federal loan dollars than any other state, but the industry was not saved. May was a whirlwind. Deeper into the month, bars were also permitted to reopen at reduced capacity, not including outdoor space. Like restaurants, some bars and breweries were ready to come back while others took a wait-and-see approach. Sadly, that didn’t last long: come late June, bars were forced to close a second time (North Texas bars, though, have since found a workaround).
June brought a national reckoning with racism. We’ve collectively had, and must continue to have, a lot of tough conversations. More important, though, is the material change that must bloom from growth and learning. For some, that’s looked like being intentional about who you choose to support.
“I feel that this introspection during this time has spilled out into every aspect of life in society and especially in restaurants because restaurants are social, passionate places. So people that don’t know how to express their appreciation…have found an outlet in being able to go, ‘Oh, well, I can support these minority-owned businesses,'” says Gardner, who is Black. “Hopefully, it’s a game changer for the better—the fact that [race-based injustice] is so in your face and visible, that there has been a problem and that there is currently a problem, will help most people feel like it’s time to resolve this problem.”
We’ve seen that the same systems pre-pandemic didn’t work for everyone all the time. Essential food workers make up 15 percent of total COVID-19 hospitalizations in Dallas County to date.
I think most restaurants try to do right by their employees, but the cracks in the entire industry are exposed more than ever. A wage base of $2.13 an hour hasn’t budged since 1991. These employees rely on tips to survive and to eke out a $7.25 minimum wage, but tips are down between 75 and 90 percent according to the nonprofit One Fair Wage. Most of these part-time employees don’t have access to health insurance—in a pandemic, despite being critical infrastructure workers.
It’s no secret that undocumented workers made up the backbone of the restaurant industry—cooks, dishwashers, bussers, food prep, meat packers, farm workers—yet are ineligible for unemployment insurance or government aid. During her furlough, former general manager at Armoury D.E. and soon-to-be staff at Parliament Rosey Sullivan created Undocumented Workers Fund of Dallas to give micro grants to those she knew labored in the food industry yet received the least help. Just this week UWFD was awarded a $25,000 grant from the city of Dallas and The Emma Lazarus Resilience Fund.
So, where do we go from here?
It’s not all doom and gloom, I see glimmers of hope in the form of food justice organizations and careful restaurant comebacks.
Pastry chef Diana Zamora started the Project La Familia nonprofit to help feed families in need. She’s since teamed up with Harvest Food Project to combine their efforts serving Dallas communities.
“Talk about community coming together. Yeah, this year, it sucked. But when you look at it like this, it is amazing to see the community come together to help each other out—to uplift each other,” says Zamora. She has a newfound purpose. “We’re doing good shit, man, we’re doing stuff for the community with the skill set that we have, instead of sitting there, like, trying to get the next big award.”
As for pastry work, reopened restaurants aren’t rehiring pastry chefs but they have outsourced that work, meaning Zamora is an individual contractor who still gets to make dessert but on her own terms.
But to rebuild a robust restaurant community, for it to really return stronger than how we left it these last 200 days ago, shouldn’t we uplift the most vulnerable? Yes to takeout! Yes to big tips! Those are obvious.
As the industry reflects back on this tumultuous year, we know there’s more work to do. “Whether it be food insecurity, or the way workers are treated, or mental health—you can’t ignore it anymore. So the silver lining is this whole thing brought out issues that need to be addressed,” says Zamora. “There’s no reason you should go back to the way that it was exploiting the workers.”
If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that we can’t predict what’s going to happen next. I’d like for us to reimagine a dining scene, which was and is so vibrant, to be safer and fairer. That will make it better.
A version of this story was published in the SideDish newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the latest food and drink news.